As Connor Hellebuyck rolls, so do the Winnipeg Jets. The former Vezina Trophy winner, and arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, has consistently proven to be the best player in a Jets uniform over the past five seasons. If they are going to contend as they suggest they can, he is going to have to play a big role in that resurgence and have a bounce-back season in 2022-23.
Hellebuyck’s 2021-22 season was full of uncertainty, change, distraction, lack of defense and overwork. He contracted and suffered through COVID, welcomed the birth of his first child, suffered from a lack of help from his teammates and was the workhorse for a coach who needed wins. As a result, for the first time in a Jets uniform, he had average numbers statistically and a substantially subpar performance by his own standards.
The general disappointment of the 2021-22 season has been well documented. The Jets started the season 9-3-3 which had them on pace for 49 wins, 114 points and second overall in the Western Conference. Things went sour after that, winning only eight of their next 25 games. Hellebuyck’s stats were down, he wasn’t stifling the opposition and rarely displayed the on-ice thievery that the Jets’ faithful had become accustomed to seeing.
Surely, the Jets can’t go into next season without getting Connor Hellebuyck some help in the form of a team capable of playing defence in front of him.— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) April 11, 2022
In the past, fans have been fortunate enough to witness Hellebuyck steal a few games when his teammates have played poorly in front of him. In 2021-22, he had an uncharacteristically poor campaign. He was not himself, or who Jets fans came to know and they rarely saw the magic he flashed in previous seasons.
Hellebuyck Didn’t Play to His Standards
Last season, Hellebuyck’s save percentage (SV%) was .910 and his goals-against average (GAA) was 2.97, very respectable numbers to say the least… just not for him. In the past four seasons, amongst goalies who played a minimum of 200 games, he had a SV% of .919 while posting a GAA of 2.47. Both marks were second only to Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning. I don’t think I need to compare the team defense of the Lightning with that of the Jets to illustrate my point that he has been one of the best goalies on the planet.
In 2021-22 amongst goalies who played in a minimum of 50 games, Hellebuyck’s numbers were respectable but not outstanding. According to MoneyPuck.com the previously cited stats (SV% – .910, GAA – 2.97) ranked him 12th in GAA and 11th in SV%. The NHL average for SV % was .907, with a GAA of 2.92, so clearly, his numbers were not horrendous. Some would contend they were excellent considering the lack of help in front of him, they were just not the Vezina-type numbers Jets fans have seen him post in the past.
Nobody expects Connor Hellebuyck to steal every game he appears in. But last night against Vegas was a not-so-subtle reminder that, when he’s playing at an optimal level, anything is possible. (@WiebesWorld)https://t.co/Bsfy5T3Fbi— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 23, 2022
There’s been speculation as to why Hellebuyck was less than stellar. I don’t think it was any one element that led to a subpar season, but instead an accumulation of events that brought uncertainty, distraction and frustration.
Hellebuyck Faced COVID & Bad Defense
To start with, Hellebuyck was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Aug. 20, less than a month before the opening of training camp, and it took 10 days before he started to feel like himself again. By that time, the NHLPA agreed to ‘strongly encourage’ all players to be vaccinated. He did get his shots, just sooner than he would have liked.
“I’m not anti-vax by any means, but I’d like to have that decision for myself. It felt very forced on me. I had just gotten COVID and gotten over it, and then I had to get the vax. Which made me feel like I had COVID all over again.” Another week of similar symptoms followed and now much closer to training camp. To think he was completely healthy and recovered and his body was NHL-ready on opening night may not have been realistic. Did this factor into his underwhelming season? Certainly not being physically and mentally ready wasn’t a great start.
A second and more obvious issue that played a role in his 2021-22 performance was the poor defensive play of the team in front of him. In the summer of 2021, the Jets acquired Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to bolster their defensive corps. It was step one in a renewed emphasis on team defense and defensive-zone responsibilities. It was also a strategy that never materialized.
“But again, what do you expect when Hellebuyck consistently faces the most shots against every year? What do you expect when he’s seeing odd-man rush after odd-man rush? Or when you simply can’t get a puck cleared out of the zone? And what do you expect when rebounds aren’t neatly dealt with by his teammates?– Scott Billeck, (from “BILLECK: Disaster in front of Hellebuyck a long-standing issue for Jets, Winnipeg Sun, 12/03/2022)
Hellebuyck is currently in a system where he plays 80 percent of the games, faces more shots, more quality scoring chances and works harder than his counterpart at the other end of the rink on a nightly basis. Can you imagine what would happen if the Jets, with him in net, had a solid defensive game plan? I can, it was called the 2017-18 season.
Hellebuyck Was Simply Overworked
Hellebuyck was the victim of a coach who was trying hard to keep his job. Before the All-Star Break, the Jets’ chances to make the playoffs were sliding. They never really made a significant run, and when they did win a couple of games in a row, they would answer with a disappointing loss.
Interim head coach Dave Lowry was on the hot seat. He said he was going to bring change to the Jets, and while he did in some respects, he didn’t when it came to his goaltenders. In order to keep his job, the Jets would have had to make the playoffs and win often. As a result, Lowry showed absolutely no trust in backup Eric Comrie despite the fact he played outstanding whenever he was in the net. Hellebuyck was overworked down the stretch and ended the season tired and not sharp.
Hellebuyck started 13 consecutive games in December and January, which resulted in a 4-7-2 record with a 3.39 GAA and a .897 SV%. Not stellar by any means. He was simply overworked and the Jets had no intention of giving Comrie much in the way of responsibilities. As a result, in February, Hellebuyck started 10 out of the team’s 12 games, then in March, 13 out of 16. By March 17, the Jets’ odds of making the playoffs was a paltry nine percent. Lowry, looking for wins to keep his job, overused Hellebuyck with the excuse of being in a playoff race. Mathematically they were; realistically, they were not.
Expect the Old Connor Hellebuyck to Be Back Between the Pipes
Going into training camp, Hellebuyck has things going for him this season that he didn’t a year ago. He is healthy and should come to training camp in peak physical condition. COVID and the subsequent vaccinations that set him back last fall are not in the picture. Tack on the workload he was given and it could be argued that he was never truly healthy or rested long enough last season to be effective.
If any of you have children, you know the first few months are the roughest, especially with your first. Hellebuyck and his wife welcomed their first son to the world on Nov. 2. It’s an exciting time in one’s life, but not exactly the environment conducive to getting rest. I’m not making any excuses here, but he was physically fatigued from the aforementioned illness and workload, combined with a condensed spring schedule all while being a new father and awake throughout the night. There is absolutely nothing in that scenario that screams high-performance.
Hellebuyck is entering this season with a new head coach in Rick Bowness and a new backup goalie in David Rittich. Both come with experience that Lowry and Comrie lacked. That will make a difference. Bowness has also indicated that the Jets will be better defensively than they have been in the past, which he has proven he can do. Facing fewer shots and fewer quality chances means less work for Hellebuyck, which in turn means better results. The fact that the Jets have signed a backup netminder with plenty of NHL experience indicates they recognize the need for a goalie the coaching staff can trust to take on more of the regular season workload. Rittich’s availability should mean a stronger and more consistent Hellebuyck in the second half of the season and down the playoff stretch.
There is no doubt in my mind that Hellebuyck will again be the goaltender Jets fans have come to expect this year. There are too many improvements over last season’s issues to feel any other way. He’s been too good and too consistent for too long to think that 2021-22 was anything but an anomaly based on a number of unfortunate circumstances. This season, look for improvements in the Jets’ play and in his results.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.